CINCINNATI – Each day, Doug Gallant focuses on keeping a nearly two-acre grassy field looking lush and green for potential critics, who range from star athletes who trod on it to tens of thousands of people who sit near it, to many more around the nation who see it on television.
While you might hope your lawn just draws approving – perhaps envious – looks from the people on your block, the Cincinnati Reds’ head groundskeeper has some advice on how to improve it without making lawn care a full-time job.
“It’s kind of a different world out on the field than on your home lawn, but there are some common things that work for both,” said Gallant, who has been in charge of the baseball team’s playing surface since 2001. “There’s no easy fix, but do just the basics and that should help. You get what you put into it.”
An Ohio State University graduate in turfgrass management, Gallant has helped install sports fields from Miami to Qatar, and last year began offering tips to Reds fans via scoreboard video clips as part of The Scotts Co.’s Major League Baseball sponsorship.
“He’s done a great job,” said David Williams, a University of Kentucky turfgrass scientist who takes students to view Gallant’s handiwork in Cincinnati. “I don’t usually watch baseball on TV, but when I see one of their games is on, I always pause for a minute or two to have a look at the field.”
Here’s a starting nine from Gallant to boost your chances of winning the neighborhood pennant race for best lawn, with a caution that results can vary depending on grass, soil type and region:
Gallant says mowing two to three times a week is good for healthy grass growth, although probably not practical for many homeowners with jobs and commutes.
“For most people, just getting the yard mowed is a challenge, and mowing is pretty important,” Gallant said. “The mowing frequency will help keep the lawn thick. You really don’t want to let your yard go two weeks without being mowed and let it get shin high.”
Once a week can suffice, although Gallant compares mowing to exercising: Working out three times a week is better than once a week.
About 2.5 inches to 3 inches tall is good, Gallant said. Much taller, and the grass starts leaning over. When cutting, follow the “one-third rule”: “Don’t cut more than a third of the blade at once; you don’t want to shock the grass.” And it’s OK to leave those short clippings on the lawn.
During the worst heat and dryness of summer, usually late July and August, Gallant suggests letting the grass go a half inch or so higher to provide the lawn more shade and reduce mowing frequency to every 10 days or so.
You should vary direction (such as side-to-side, front-to-back) in the way you mow.
“You actually train grass almost like you train the hair on your head, if you’re parting your hair a certain way every time,” Gallant said. “Change directions to make that grass stand up and grow more vertically.”
Changing direction at least every third mowing will help, he says. Never changing direction also can leave tire tracks in your lawn.
Keeping mower blades sharpened is crucial.
“As those blades dull, you can really see – it’s like you’re cutting with a butter knife instead of a surgical knife,” Gallant said. “You’re just going to tear the grass, if not beat it down.”
Sharpening once a month is ideal, but sharpening twice a year is OK for most. If you’re running over sticks, gravel and other rough debris, watch your grass for signs of tearing from dull blades. Gallant also suggests making sure mower tires are properly inflated, to avoid an uneven cut.
The best defense against weeds or nuisance plants is your grass itself.
“People ask me why there aren’t any weeds out on the field; they’re surprised to hear we don’t spray with herbicides or weed killers,” Gallant said. “The main reason is we don’t have to, because the grass is growing so thick. The more aggressively you get the grass growing, it’s not going to give the weeds a chance.”
Adding nitrogen two to four times a year is helpful, especially once in autumn.
“That really is the best time to give it that shot of nitrogen because the plant is going to take that and store it all winter long,” Gallant said. “It’s going to give that plant good root development.”
And for those focused on staying green, there are effective organic fertilizers available, he says.
Don’t make an error by not aerating, which opens up holes for air and water circulation.
“It is really, really beneficial. That could be done once a month if a person had the time or money to do it,” Gallant said.
There is a range of aerators or attachments to buy or rent, or lawn services usually offer aeration. Adding seed after aeration is a good way to fill in thin patches.
Be cautious during the driest summer months, especially when the ground gets very hard. Aeration then can leave yellowish rings, Gallant says. Fall and early spring are the best times.
Grass generally needs an inch of water a week, Gallant says, which in a place like Ohio typically won’t fall from the sky in much of July and August. If you water with sprinklers or other means, he suggests adding the inch of water over two to three days, allowing it to soak in.
Water at around 6 or 7 a.m., he says, when there’s no hot sun beating down. Watering in the evening leaves the grass sitting wet overnight, which makes it more vulnerable to fungus and disease.
Because of time, expense or local water-use restrictions, it’s not possible for everyone to water their lawns. “It’s not terrible for a yard to go dormant,” Gallant said. “It will come back.”
But if you do water, do it regularly.
“If you’re not going to do it consistently, don’t water. You don’t want to kind of tease it and give it a little bit of water, so it comes back a little,” he said.
If your yard goes dormant in summer, be aware that the grass becomes dry and fragile, so Gallant says restrict foot traffic across the lawn.